The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Fiction — audiobook. Read by Anna Fields. Blackstone Audio, 2004. Originally published 1905. 13 hours, 42 minutes. Library copy.

Set against the backdrop of the 1890s New York upper class society, Wharton’s fourth novel tells the story of Lily Bart, an unmarried woman, beginning with her visit to Lawrence Selden’s apartment. Lily has feelings for Lawrence but must marry a wealthier man in order to keep her social standing.

An unexpected visit by Lawrence causes her to change her mind and a series of events — innocently accepting money from her friend’s husband, alarming Lawrence by changing her mind about him, incorrectly being accused of adultery — leaves Lily in social ruin. Attempting to fight her way back to high society, Lily is advised by her two remaining friends to marry — quickly. Lily refuses their advice working as a personal secretary and, later, in a milliner’s until her inheritance arrives and she can save herself.

Married to her principles but trapped by a society with rigid expectations for her life, Lily Bart quickly wormed her way into my heart much in the same manner that Emma Woodhouse did. There are aspects of her character that would be easy to dismiss or derive — her constant sabotage of her own prospects due to snobbery, her refusal to associate with people who offend her sensibilities, her inability to reconcile herself with the reality of her situations — but each of these characteristics can be viewed through a favorable lens. She is deeply committed to her principles; she is a victim of a society where women are, tragically, confined to rigid gender roles and left unequipped to deal with scandal or reduced circumstances.

And, once again, Wharton explores the hypocrisy of the elite society in Manhattan presented a woman whose reputation is left in tatters by rumors and gossipers who hold unmarried women to different standards. Lily is viewed as a whore because she accepted financial support from a jealous woman’s husband yet society is willing to accept her with open arms if she inherits a substantial fortune or marries a man. Lily longs for independence and to marry for love yet society’s expectations for her constrain her access to money and her ability to function independent of society.

Interspersed amongst this larger critique are smaller yet still pointed criticisms of a society confined by an old code of morality but fixed on money and conspicuous consumption. The parties Wharton describes in great detail are lavish affairs, but there is always an air of superiority and suspicion surrounding the attendees as the old families and “blue blood” must decide to reject or accept the flood of “new money” during the Gilded Age.

While most people seem to consider this novel to be Wharton’s lesser work due to it being her first, I actually enjoyed this novel more than The Age of Innocence due to both to the brilliant of her critique and the character she created in Lily Bart.

The Classics Club:

I read this book for the Classics Club, which challenges participants read and discuss fifty or more books considered to be classics within a five year period. My personal goal for this project is to read seventy-five books in three years ending on August 15, 2017. You can find out more information by checking out my introductory post, project post, or spreadsheet of titles.

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Snow Falling On Cedars by David Guterson

Fiction — print. Vintage, 1995. 460 pgs. Purchased.

Winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award, Guterson’s novel is the most recently published novel on my list for the Classics Club. Off the coast of Washington on San Piedro Island in 1954, Japanese-American Kabuo Miyamoto is accused of murdering a local fisherman named Carl Heine Jr., who was found entangled in the drift of his boat out at sea. The accusation relies on the still raw history between Carl Jr. and Kabuo, between the Caucasian residents and those of Japanese descent who came under suspicion following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

“This a murder trial, after all, and snow or no snow, we have got to keep that foremost in our hearts and minds.” (pg. 317)

Kabuo’s father was making under-the-table mortgage payments to Carl Sr. on seven acres of land because non-American born people of Japanese descent are not allowed to own land in the country. The payments stop, however, when Kabuo and his family are interned by the United States government at Manzanar. When Kabuo returned after service to his nature during the war, the widow of Carl Sr. has sold the land to Ole Jurgensen for significant profit and refuses to acknowledge the claim Kabuo and his family had to the land. For years, Kabuo pines for the land determined to right the wrong committed against his family while Carl Jr. longs to purchased back the land his mother sold without consulting him first.

Ole Jurgensen’s decision to sell the land to Carl only hours before Kabuo has the chance to approach him appears to be the perfect motive for murder. Yet Kabuo and his wife, Hatsue Imada, insist Kabuo would never hurt anyone and call upon the town’s only reporter Ishmael Chambers, a Marine Corps veteran who once loved Hatseu but now hates all “Japs” after losing an arm fighting at the Battle of Tarawa, to help prove Kabuo’s innocence.

The narrative is centered on the trail with unobtrusive flashbacks to the past to help explain a particular witness’ motives or biases towards Kabuo and his family. The courtroom drama and the past take turns moving the story forward, and I particularly liked the decision to set the novel years after the war to show how prejudice and hysteria can linger long after the physical manifestations are gone.

“Let us so live in this trying time that when it is all over we islanders can look one another in the eye with the knowledge that we have behaved honorably and fairly. Let us remember what is so easy to forget in the mad intensity of wartime: that prejudices and hatred are never right and never to be accepted by a just society.” (pg. 184-185)

There is one incredibly thought-provoking and poetic conversation between Kabuo and Carl Jr. where they discuss how difficult it is to set aside hatred after war. Carl Jr. explains how he cannot reconcile his memories of playing with Kabuo as children because he was trained by the US Army to immediately and ruthlessly kill all Japanese people. He seems to think this is only a problem that he possess, but Kabuo immediately informs him that he, too, killed during his time fighting for the Americans in World War II.

In his case, however, the Nazis he was instructed to kill looked like Carl Jr. Evil is, therefore, not associated with any particular race or appearance, and neither Carl Jr. nor he should be allowed to hate their neighbor simply because they look like the enemy. In summary, this conversation sounds obvious enough, but it is written in such a poetic way that speaks to the novel and the experiences of its characters as a whole.

Perhaps the only aspect distracting from the beauty of this novel is the sudden and unnecessary intrusion of sexual scenes into the narrative. Certainly such scenes help to explain the relationship between Ishmael and Hatsue, but I am not convinced it was necessary to explain the impotence of a lawyer on the case. Unless Guterson’s point was to attribute the lawyer’s incompetence to his impotence?

Overall, though, I adored this novel and the way it explores both the rather hidden history of Japanese internment during World War II and the affects hysteria and prejudice can have on a community long after a horrific event occurs. So glad I added this one to my list.

The Classics Club:

I read this book for the Classics Club, which challenges participants read and discuss fifty or more books considered to be classics within a five year period. My personal goal for this project is to read seventy-five books in three years ending on August 15, 2017. You can find out more information by checking out my introductory post, project post, or spreadsheet of titles.

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

000f33c4_mediumFiction — audiobook. Read by Frank Muller. Recorded Books, 1986. Originally published 1949. 9 hours, 48 minutes. Library copy.

Freedom is the freedom to say two plus two makes four. Yet in the city of London located in Airstrip One (formerly known as Great Britain) — a province of the superstate Oceania (formerly known as the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom) — men and women are denied that freedom by a political system called English Socialism, also known as Ingsoc in the government’s invented language, Newspeak. At the head of this political system is Big Brother, and Big Brother says two plus two makes five or three or, really, whatever Big Brother wants because Big Brother decides what is truth.

History is controlled by the Ministry of Truth, which is where the protagonist of the novel Winston Smith works rewriting newspaper articles so the historical record always supports the current party line. Those who question Big Brother or presume to insist two plus two makes four are often turned in by their neighbors and children, persecuted for “thoughtcrimes”, and tortured by the Ministry of Love. While Oceania is in a state of perpetual war, the Ministry of Abundance continues to tell the starving masses that agricultural yields and production levels continue to climb higher and higher.

Now that I have finished this novel, I’m wondering how and why I left it languishing on my to-read list for so many years. It truly is the masterpiece people claim it to be and I should not have resisted reading this novel for as long as I did.

The intricacies of the political system Orwell creates is particularly thought-provoking, and I found myself pausing the audiobook so I could ponder over a small detail Winston introduces into his narration. Although the year 1984 has long since passed, the message of this novel continues to resonate today, particularly as media outlets position themselves as supportive or critical of one political party and present the historical record in a certain light to reflect poorly on the opposing political party.

It is often stated that history is written by the victor, but is the record being continuously rewritten by each new regime? Is war a tool to motivate the economy? Is fear utilized by the political elite to control the masses and continue to perpetrate the need for war? Certainly, I can come up with examples to confirm the truth of all three questions in today’s society showing just how applicable the message of Orwell’s novel continues to be.

This is the second audiobook I have listed to narrated by Frank Muller, but this is the first where his narration really stood out in my mind. His ability to convey Winston’s anxiety and fear with the inflection of his voice caused me to tense, to feel those same emotions that the rather stark narrative might have caused me to miss.

Others’ Thoughts:

The Classics Club:

I read this book for the Classics Club, which challenges participants read and discuss fifty or more books considered to be classics within a five year period. My personal goal for this project is to read seventy-five books in three years ending on August 15, 2017. You can find out more information by checking out my introductory post, project post, or spreadsheet of titles.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Fiction — audiobook. Read by Lorna Raver. Blackstone Audio, 2008. Originally published 1920. 11 hours, 46 minutes. Library copy.

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Literature (the first ever awarded to a woman), Wharton’s novel follows a young lawyer, Newland Archer, as he moves about the elitist social circle of New York City and prepares to marry May Welland. Before Newland and May’s engagement is announced as the triumph it is, Countess Ellen Olenska, May’s cousin, returns to Manhattan introducing scandal to their circle for Ellen has separated from her abusive husband. Ellen’s disillusionment with the society in which she, Newland, and May were raised begins to trouble Newland, and he finds attraction to Ellen growing even as society champions Newland and May’s marriage as the pinnacle of good breeding and fortune.

Society – its conformity, ritual, and rules – is the main character of this novel and Wharton’s presentation of society rather than the characters of Newland, May, or Ellen is the thought-provoking aspect of this novel. Without society’s rigid structure, Newland would not worry about upsetting the status quo by following his heart, May would not entrap (for lack of a better word) her husband consigning both her and their children to life filled with resentment, and Ellen would not consider trading away separation from her abusive husband as the lesser of two evils. Without society’s rigid structure, the action of the novel might be less subtle and the details not so rich.

The manipulation of society’s rigid structure by Ellen, May, and Newland to meet their individual goals twists the novel into an entirely different interpretation. At a cursory read, the novel seems to be arguing against the constraints put upon people by society. Yet, as I pondered the characters and their scant actions, the novel also demonstrates the resourcefulness and meanness (for lack of a better work) people develop and internalize when consigned to such situations. May is presented as the villain or, at the very least, culpable in Ellen and Newland’s unhappiness due to her gentle (read: stupid) nature. Yet May sees her marriage to Newland for what it is – a means for entrance into the highest echelon of society – and carves out a modicum of control in order to keep that together. She plays the few cards she has and wins, at least in society’s view.

Unfortunately, the intense focus to details rather than action works against the novel from an audiobook standpoint. It takes a tremendous amount of concentration to catch all the details, to understand exactly why Newland is so resign in the face of so much desperation, and I was forever missing what originally appeared to be minute details forcing me the rewind again and again. The narrator, Lorna Raver, was also very easy to tune out – whether this is due to the intonation of her voice or the structure of the novel, I cannot ascertain. Oh, how I wish I had read rather than listened to this novel so as not to taint my appreciation.

The Classics Club:

I read this book for the Classics Club, which challenges participants read and discuss fifty or more books considered to be classics within a five year period. My personal goal for this project is to read seventy-five books in three years ending on August 15, 2017. You can find out more information by checking out my introductory post, project post, or spreadsheet of titles.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Fiction — audiobook. Read by Richard Allen. Tantor Audio, 2008. Originally published 1852. 20 hours, 8 minutes. Library copy.

Subtitled “Life Among the Lowly”, Stowe’s anti-slavery novel begins with Eliza learning her son, George, and the middle-aged Tom, who has a wife and children, have been sold by the Shelbys to pay off their debts. Eliza and Tom have been with the Shelbys since Arthur and Emily were children and the Shelbys consider themselves good, caring masters.

But Arthur ignores his earlier promise of giving Tom his freedom and Emily is unable to hold her promise to Eliza that her only child will be not be taken from her. While Eliza makes a run for freedom with her little boy across a treacherous river crossing, Tom is sold and travels on a riverboat down the Mississippi River.

Once on board, Tom is purchased by Augustine St. Clare and taken to New Orleans where he continues his friendship with Eva St. Clare over their shared Christian faith. Eva eventually becomes very ill and her deep faith in the face of death at a young age convinces her father to free Tom and her cousin Ophelia, who is against slavery, to reject all her prejudices against blacks and finally accept Topsy, who St. Clare purchased to show Ophelia that he is not biased against blacks despite owning slaves. After Eva’s death and the sudden death of her father, Tom is sold to Simon Legree and taken to a plantation somewhere in Louisiana. Tom refuses to whip the other slaves on the plantation and is punished for both his refusal and his deep faith in God by Legree.

Meanwhile, Eliza locates her husband George Harris, who ran away after his owner pressed him to set aside his marriage vows to Eliza and marry a slave on his new owner’s plantation. Their escape to Canada is thwarted by the slave hunter Tom Loker, and George pushes the man over a cliff after her and Eliza have been captured. Despite the risk to them, Eliza insists George take Tom to a nearby Quaker community for medical treatment.

According to the case of this audiobook, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln told Stowe her work had been a catalyst for the Civil War and “Stowe’s Tom is actually American literature’s first black hero, a man who suffers for refusing to obey his white oppressors”. Both statements make me glad I finally read the novel, and her didactic arguments are particularly important in framework of understanding American history.

Listening to the audiobook read by Richard Allen allowed me to appreciate the dialects employed by Stowe in her characterizations and helped distinguish between each of the characters. Given the title, it is certainly understandable why people remember Tom most vividly, but I thought the “secondary” character of George was largely exempt from many of the problems — one-dimensionality, caricature, stereotypes — that plagued the majority of the characters in this book, which clearly arise due to the edifying purpose of the novel.

As I was listening to the novel, though, I could not help but wonder if the reason the book has not stood the test of time — that is, there has not been a film adaptation since 1965 and the novel is not taught in public schools — is due to its heavy reliance upon both stereotypes about black people and Christianity. Both Uncle Tom and Eliza are presented as people pleased with slavery while under the ownership of the Shirleys. It is only after they are sold (and the Shirleys succumbed to the sin of greed) that slavery is shown to be the true evil that it is.

In addition to advocating for the end of slavery in America, Stowe’s novel puts for the idea that a strong Christian faith can help slaves overcome the violence inflicted on them and help slave owners see the errors of their way and, therefore, appears to suggest that being morally opposed to slavery comes about solely as a result of being a Christian. Given the time period in which the novel was written, it is understandable for a large number of the characters to proclaim to be Christians and, personally, I’m glad she addressed the claims on the part of slave owners that owning slaves is Christian.

But I would also argue against her equation of Christianity with moral authority, and I can see how such assertions would make it difficult for the novel to be covered in a public school such as the ones I attended. (Her advocating for freed slaves being sent to Africa rather than integration in American society in the epilogue could also be difficult to “teach” to students.) So, yes, the novel is historically important and filled with very memorable characters with, sadly, not entirely unique experiences, but the problematic stereotypes and didactic nature of the novel makes it understandable as way the novel has faded from prominence.

Others’ Thoughts:

The Classics Club:

I read this book for the Classics Club, which challenges participants read and discuss fifty or more books considered to be classics within a five year period. My personal goal for this project is to read seventy-five books in three years ending on August 15, 2017. You can find out more information by checking out my introductory post, project post, or spreadsheet of titles.